The Season of Rejoicing

When we began to think about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood, one defined by a different set of principles and aspirations than most neighborhoods of Jews, we needed to consider the extent to which our intentional (not incidental) presence in Reservoir Hill would mean focusing on particular Jewish practices.  Initially, there was some anxiety about asserting our Jewishness in majority black spaces.  Would engaging our West Baltimore neighbors signal triumphalism at worst and, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige where well-intentioned people of privilege dominate minority spaces, subtly, if unknowingly, remaking them in their image?  Isn’t it our job, said some, to listen, learn and support — to champion allyship?

Tactically, these questions are important.  Too many of us in positions of power or influence assume our resources come with answers to questions we have not been asked.  Effective encounters begin with humility.  The problem with exclusively centering the other, though, is it doesn’t allow both parties to bring their full selves to the moment of encounter.  Educational Philosopher Parker Palmer writes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Finding joy in authentic connection and service is what drives our relational work in Reservoir Hill, and last month’s Whitelock Farm Harvest Festival was a great example.  For several years now, Beth Am/IFO and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council have cosponsored an annual Greens and Kugel cook-off.  It’s a food and culture sharing extravaganza bringing together Jewish and African American foods, but more importantly, Jews and non-Jewish African Americans.

Many years the harvest festival occurs on Sukkot when Jews also celebrate our fall harvest.  So this year, a congregant lent us a small sukkah to erect on Whitelock Street.  IFO (In, For, Of) and Beth Am board members volunteered to share plans and garner feedback about Beth Am’s renovation and expansion plans, and a few of us offered ecumenical lulav demonstrations.

Kugel maven Bonnie Guralnick with Beth Am ED Ted Merwin and his daughter Leah
Beth Am past president Jim Goodman does lulav demonstrations with Reservoir Hill neighbors
Jim Goodman and Senator Barbara Robinson

The scene had a historical elegance as Whitelock was once the pulmonary artery at the heart of Jewish Central-West Baltimore.  Now it forms Reservoir Hill’s verdant core with our urban farm, German Park Playground, a community garden and the new South Lots outdoor kitchen and community gathering space.  Sukkot is called “the season of our rejoicing,” a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest.  The annual greens and kugel cook-off won’t solve systemic inequities, it won’t erase racism or antisemitism and it won’t unmake decades of neglect that marked Whitelock’s long hiatus between Jewish or black owned shops and the community farm.  

And there is more work to be done: as the contest has gained in popularity it’s drawing fewer lower income entrants.  But it’s hard to deny the joy that manifests each fall in Reservoir Hill.  It’s not the prizes awarded that matter, but the realization of shared vocation.  “True vocation joins self and service,” writes Parker Palmer, which is to say it’s not about “…scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”

A version of this piece will occur in the November, 2017 issue of Jmore.

What to Do with the Pedestals?

The removal of Confederate statues is an opportunity to think about what stories need to be told next.

Recently, much of the country has been focused on the question of Confederate monuments, iconic tributes to a bygone and — most would say — nary-missed era.  As white nationalists and neo-Nazis exploit these statues to bolster support for their warped visions of American greatness, a number of cities around the nation have quickly mobilized to remove them.

Here in Baltimore, four monuments came down in August, under cover of night, leaving behind pedestals supporting only air, photonegative memories of horses and figures that once stood proudly on those plinths. Much of the conversation in the aftermath of the statues’ removal has been what to do with them?

Put them in a museum? A cemetery? Melt them down and turn them into black heroes like Thurgood Marshall or Harriet Tubman?

This is an interesting and worthy discussion, but I have a different question: What should be done with the pedestals?

Statuary has always been somewhat at odds with Jewish tradition. Idolatry is the closest thing we have to a cardinal sin because, as I shared last month, it strives to constrain a limitless God.

But this aversion to sculptures seems to have ebbed and flowed over time.  The Talmud records (Avodah Zara 44b) that none other than Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch of the Jewish community, would utilize a bathhouse decorated with a statue of Aphrodite!

Even Solomon’s Temple contained a possible violation of the Second Commandment that prohibits creating “… any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).

The Ark of the Covenant was adorned with cherubim while housing the very tablets on which the above words were inscribed.  In close proximity was a copper serpent, commissioned by God and fashioned by none other than Moses (Num. 21:8-9) until King Hezekiah destroyed it in the 8th century BCE (II Kings 18:4).

By the time of the Babylonian exile, the Ark itself had disappeared, and when the Second Temple was built, no replacement was made. The dimensions of the inner sanctum were the same, there was space for what was biblically understood to be God’s footstool, but for the next several hundred years, the Holy of Holies would house no earthly vessel, save for the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.

This historical progression could provide a template for considering the fate of Confederate pedestals. Surely, the Holy Ark and Stonewall Jackson are not analogous! But the notion of elevating ideas and values over things, of avoiding the temptation to worship the work of human hands, is central to monotheism.

Statues venerating chattel slavery serve only to reinforce the point.  What if, in the coming months and years, these sites undermine the very white supremacy that put them there in the first place?  Pedestals, with proper oversight, could become stages and canvases.  Theater troupes could perform on and around them, content that challenges viewers to confront our city’s legacy of racism.  Artists could create temporary installations atop the platforms, tributes to Baltimoreans, ideas and values pointing us toward a more just society.  Managing these exhibitions would be a good course correction for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts after its missteps surrounding this year’s book festival.

This is my suggestion, but I offer it with reservation and even trepidation. Whatever is ultimately done with both the statues and the pedestals on which they once stood, it must be the African American community that decides.  They are the majority of Baltimore’s population, forced to walk, jog or drive past these Confederate idols for more than a century.  They are the ones whose ancestors were the property of whites.

We Jews have never needed anyone to tell us how to memorialize the numerous sins visited upon our people over time. Black Baltimoreans, too, know their story well.